The year that nearly was

The year that nearly was

The year that nearly was

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade….

Turn off the hungry PacMan. This essay is not going to be more worthwhile than printing Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ in full. So any reader who has the poem on her shelves can just quietly fold this magazine, go away and read it.

The year 1939 is still within the reach of the memories of many of us, and possibly they would vouch for it that it was a worse time for what we laughingly call civilisation. At least, then Auden merely speculated on “What huge imago made/ A psychopathic god” — not more than one, as we ask ourselves now. A leader in The Economist stated as fact that the threats of Nazism and Soviet Russia were worse than anything we (‘we’ meaning ‘the West’) are facing today. That is certainly optimistic, given the probability — not possibility any more — that nuclear weapons will soon be wholesale commodities.

But who decides who shouldn’t have them? That has been one of the key debates of the last 10 years. India has shrugged it off; in 60 years of democracy we have blundered, like everyone’s favourite elephant, to a position of power. Iran is not likely to succeed in the same venture. North Korea, more rogue than any state, may.
This year began with the hope of audacity. A relatively unknown, relatively young black became the most powerful man in the world. Set that against the background of what Langston Hughes wrote in a 1953 novel:
“It’s powerful,” he said.
“That one drop of Negro blood — because just one drop of Negro blood makes a man coloured. One drop — you’re a Negro!”

Yes, Obama is lighter-skinned than many of us Indians. Essays and letters in many journals, soon after his victory, asked when India would elect a Dalit as Prime Minister. It was not a frivolous question, though many commentators treated it as one. In India, still, one drop of Dalit spittle suffices to make impure a cup.

How did this year change India? It is questionable whether Mayawati as Chief Minister of the most populous state did anything for Dalit pride with her statue-building. The villages continued to decline; farmer suicides continued.

The Mumbai attacks could have focussed attention on the urgent need for developing our cities properly. Instead, attention was diverted, by the media, to the media coverage. At least, it was a year blessedly free of terrorist attacks. Those were visited instead upon our neighbour, and didn’t the ruling classes there dread the genie they had conjured up? However, it’s too soon to rejoice: The Naxalites have occupied the vacant space.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The West may say Nazism and Soviet Russia were greater threats, but 70 and 60 years ago there was only one “psychopathic god” to fear and loathe. Who was the psychopathic god of the early years of this decade? Was it Osama bin Laden, or was it George W Bush?

It is unnecessary to ask. This decade has built up so that there is a psychopathic devil to be dreaded in the psyche of every intelligent and aware adult.

As one who claims to belong to that number, I am also aware — as Auden was — that the decade ends with a year whose number ends in zero. Therefore it began with the attacks on New York City. That December we also witnessed the closest approach of the Moon to the Earth in, and for, several thousand years. It was a full moon, and bigger and more golden than I have ever seen it. I saw it in the Anamalais, on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, where there is no smog.

The eight years since have done nothing to dispel the feeling of dread that has hung over us like that moon. And yet, this year has been better for us in India. A continuity in government has been assured. That means that some idealistic programmes may actually get on to the ground. Fewer of us have died from terrorist attacks. Notionally, we should all be safer.

In the last year, however, those of us with pockets shallow enough to feel the bottoms of have plumbed the depths. The prices of cars and air-conditioners may have fallen — I don’t know — but it costs twice as much to feed a family as it did a year ago.

The global market collapsed last year, or so they say. This year, India at least has bounced back. Who says? Why, they say, the same pundits who said last year we were in for a five-year Recession. Why do we still take them seriously?

The times are such that no year can be remembered with unmixed affection or loathing. In 2009, we had a bad monsoon. Yet the stock market behaved well. Those most affected by bad monsoons are not those who buy shares. Our society is increasingly divided, with little hope that those in power are sincere about social justice. Between 27 and 40 per cent of us are below the shadow line. We, the well-off, look at them and look away. But there’s no way any of us can be complacent any more.
                             * * *
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

The year ended with Obama receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in hope. Another hopeful sign is the Copenhagen Summit. This goes to press before anything lasting has been achieved there. But there is always hope when people are willing to talk, and to make compromises without being threatened.

It was a year that could have been so much more. All years are complicated, because humanity is not a hive governed by one mind. And every year changes the world, for good or for bad who can say? We end it, those of us who can, with our lives, our sanity not much the worse for having survived, and, we hope, with the wherewithal. Sufficient unto the year is the evil — and the good — thereof.

…May I, composed…
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(The verse quotations are from ‘September 1, 1939’ by W H Auden.)